We Talked To Mac McCaughan About Superchunk’s Masterful New Album And Helping Merge Records Navigate The Pandemic

Brett Villena

We Talked To Mac McCaughan About Superchunk’s Masterful New Album And Helping Merge Records Navigate The Pandemic

Brett Villena

Is it heresy to suggest that, 33 years and 12 albums into their career, Superchunk are just now reaching the peak of their powers? If so, fair enough, let’s tone it down just a notch: Can we agree that the career phase begun with 2010’s hiatus-ending Majesty Shredding — during which they’ve replaced prolific output and constant touring with adult stability and a new album every few years — has equalled if not exceeded their initial run as one of the most important indie rock bands of the ’90s? Despite the enduring power of those early records, documents of ripshit energy and howl-along lyrics nearly consumed by guitar noise, more often I return to these last few records. With each new release they keep coming up with graceful and sophisticated new updates on their signature sound while still dredging up that old rambunctious fire at just the right times.

Wild Loneliness, out later this month, is our latest evidence of Superchunk’s continued vitality well into middle age. Singer and guitarist Mac McCaughan recorded the album at home, with bandmates Jim Wilbur and Jon Wurster visiting his basement one at a time, Laura Ballance adding her bass parts in her own home studio across town, and a slew of guests sending in their parts from around the world. It’s not the way Superchunk have traditionally functioned, but the results are as vivid and affecting as anything they’ve ever recorded.

On 2018’s What A Time To Be Alive, the band vented its frustration with Trump-era America, resulting in the most urgent and aggressive Superchunk album in decades. The problems that fueled that album’s rage continue to loom large in this latest batch of songs, but the more topical tracks here are less about angrily flailing and more about persevering with hope. Wild Loneliness is a significantly softer and brighter album, prioritizing finesse over power — though as anyone who’s been swept up in the chorus of the climate-dread anthem “Endless Summer” knows, it’s not like they’ve done away with the power completely.

“Endless Summer,” written on a disconcertingly warm New Year’s Day, is among the songs Superchunk had already concocted before COVID-19 sent the band’s native North Carolina into lockdown in early 2020. In between work on the score for Amy Poehler’s Netflix movie Moxie and his recent solo album The Sound Of Yourself, plus helping his Merge Records artists navigate the pandemic, McCaughan wrote the rest of the album while quarantined at home, including today’s new single “On The Floor.” He says the song is “about insomnia and stress with no outlet and realizing that everyone around you is suffering in a similar way and looking for a way to be helpful instead of wallowing.” Franklin Bruno plays piano on the track, and because it reminded McCaughan of R.E.M.’s Reckoning, he got Mike Mills to sing backup on the track. “That’s amazing to me still,” McCaughan says, “because they’re such a constant of my listening life as a music fan since 1983.”

Mills and Bruno are among the many guests who contributed to Wild Loneliness remotely. There are also vocals from Sharon Van Etten, Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell, and Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake and Raymond McGinley, each of them adding gorgeous flourishes to their respective tracks. Kelly Pratt lends a horn arrangement to the crisp, gliding “Highly Suspect.” Wye Oak’s Andy Stack turns “Wild Loneliness” upside down with a surprise saxophone solo. Owen Pallett arranged strings for opener “City Of The Dead” and the elegantly charging “This Night,” a successful attempt at a kind of forward-facing nostalgia. (“I told Dan Bejar that we named the song after his album,” McCaughan says, laughing. “He said finally the dark horse of his catalog will get its due.”) Set against a pared-back, acoustic-based foundation, each of these accent pieces really pops. The result is a record that somehow feels both restrained and ornate, distressed but not despairing, mature but never “mature” as a euphemism for boring.

Last week I talked with McCaughan over Zoom from that same basement studio where Wild Loneliness came together. Below, listen to new single “On The Floor” (the one with Mike Mills and Franklin Bruno) and read excerpts from our conversation.

The album title Wild Loneliness seems like an allusion to isolation during COVID. Merge Records emerged out of a local music scene, and you’ve tried to keep that sense of community around the label as best you can. How much did the pandemic disrupt that?

MAC MCCAUGHAN: I think the community still was here. And I think we all tried to stay in touch with each with each other. But when that’s through, like, several Zoom meetings a week — it’s better than nothing, but it’s not the same as seeing people in person every day, you know? It’s hard to imagine what lockdown or that kind of thing would have been like in a time when there wasn’t that technology. And I hate conference calls, but I’m kind of used to the Zoom thing at this point. So, yeah, that allowed everyone to stay in touch. We’re still pretty much all remote in terms of the Merge crew. Except for the people that need to be there in person to do shipping and mail order and receive packages and that kind of thing.

When you’re talking about a record label, working with artists, everyone’s whole plans were completely disrupted, in terms of their work and what they plan on doing with the records and their touring and the recording and everything, you know? Which is why we ended up making this record in my studio here in my house instead of in a regular recording studio. But considering the disruption to people’s lives, I feel like people are adaptable, and it’s not always great, but people figure out ways to kind of keep moving forward in their own way.

That seems like kind of an animating principle for the album too. There’s a lot of resilience in the face of terrible circumstances.

MCCAUGHAN: Yeah, I think that the last Superchunk record was kind of about how things are terrible, and how enraging that is, and how hard that is to live with on a day-to-day basis. And the new record, I think, was more about — I mean, even before the pandemic our new record was going to be not so much that venting kind of energy and more, like, trying to seize on the things that are positive around you. And so I think that even though everything changed, the vibe of the record stayed on that trajectory.

I know you said “Endless Summer” was more of a climate change song then a pandemic song.

MCCAUGHAN: It kind of took on a different meaning after sitting home for a year.

Either way, how do you translate all that negative emotion into something that comes across uplifting? I guess this is something you guys been doing for a long time — “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo” comes to mind.

MCCAUGHAN: What our instinct is, and my instinct is — if the subject matter is a total downer, we’re not like Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds or something. We can’t also make the music super dark and heavy. So it’s kind of like the combination of maybe the lyrics are in one world, and then the music is kind of like the opposite. I want to make a record that people want to listen to, and I think that that’s kind of an interesting combination.

So you’re in the same basement right now where you guys made the record?

MCCAUGHAN: Yeah, so I recorded a bunch of demos. And this is where I normally write and record. And then when it became clear that we weren’t gonna be able to go into a studio proper — because this is when North Carolina was literally in lockdown, like you couldn’t have your business open or whatever, so no one could go into the studio — we just started working on it here, like one person at a time. Jon would come over, and we would both be masked and sitting across the room from each other. And I’d have a laptop and be controlling the recording stuff over here, and then Jon would be over there playing drums. And we just kind of did it song-by-song like that. And then Jim would come and do his guitar parts in a similar fashion. And then Laura did all her bass parts at her house because she has a recording setup over there.

So yeah, this is where we did it. But to me the most striking things on the record, like the Owen Pallett strings and the horns that Kelly Pratt does and the guest vocalists, they all recorded wherever they were. So it was mainly tracked here, but then of course, everyone added their own stuff wherever they were. And then we really didn’t want it to sound like, “Oh, a home recording project.” We didn’t want it to be a lo-fi thing. We still wanted it to sound like a Superchunk record, and we really felt like Wally Gagel was a person who could mix it in a way that mitigated whatever kind of shortcomings on the recording side I had over here. And he did. I think it sounds really good. And I don’t even know how he did it, exactly. He’s in Los Angeles. So we were just sending rough mixes to him, and then he would actually mix them for real.

A lot of music is made this way now, but is it a new thing for Superchunk to have guests sending in contributions from all over the place?

MCCAUGHAN: We’ve always had guests on our records — probably since maybe since Come Pick Me Up, really. But it’s always been people who could actually come into the studio. On What A Time To Be Alive, we did have a couple remote contributions, David Bazan sent us some some vocals for a track from where he is. But most everything else was here in person. I think the one reason that I was really comfortable doing that is because early on in the pandemic I was working on a film score for a movie called Moxie that’s on Netflix. And again, I started working on that right before lockdown, and so no one could be anywhere in one place to work on it. And while I was recording a lot of stuff here — I was writing piano parts, for instance, but then I don’t have a piano nice enough to record them for a film score. So Chris Stamey, Phil Cook, different people were recording stuff at their respective studios for the Moxie score. Michael Benjamin Lerner has contributed drum tracks for me before on my last solo record, and on this film score. So I kind of got more comfortable with that [through] making that film score. And then it just continued on with my solo record and the Superchunk record — partially because it’s the only way to do it.

When you realize that you can do stuff that way, it really opens up the pool of people that you can work with. Because, you know, Tracyanne and Teenage Fanclub are in Scotland, and Owen is in Canada, and everyone’s all over the place. And our goal with that is more to elevate the songs — “Who can give them something that they need?” — but not have it feel tacked-on unnecessarily. And so I think that was the key thing to always be mindful of, “Wait, what do the songs really need?” As opposed to, “Hey, we could do whatever,” you know? That’s kind of the problem with digital recording from the beginning is that, like, “Oh, you have unlimited possibilities?” Like, how much time do you have, you know? And so it’s more about paring things down. And for me, it helps to have — not really restrictions, but kind of baseline rules about how you are thinking about a certain record. Like on this record, I mainly play acoustic guitar on pretty much every song. It’s a couple electric solos that I play, but for the most part, I’m playing acoustic and Jim is playing electric. So I tried to stick with that. And I think that that definitely influences how the record sounds, but also made it so that again, with unlimited time in my own studio, I couldn’t just pile on the guitars or whatever.

It’s funny ’cause I’ve read a couple descriptions of the record as being stripped-down, which in some ways it is, but at the same time, I don’t think of a record with strings and horns and guest vocalists as being stripped-down. So it’s a balance, because I don’t feel like maximalism is necessarily going to serve a record like this well, so I do want it to feel stripped-down so that when the string arrangement comes in or the horns kick off a song, you’re like, “Whoa.” Like when Andy Stack’s sax solo comes in on “Wild Loneliness.” It’s not the most expected thing, you know?

Oona McCaughan

Yeah, I love that sax. What you’re talking about reminds me of a Bill Callahan album or something. This one isn’t quite that level of minimal like Apocalypse, but it’s like the less going on in the mix, the more you feel every bit of it.

MCCAUGHAN: It’s funny you should mention that because when we made Come Pick Me Up with Jim O’Rourke, one reason that I was really excited about working with Jim O’Rourke is because of the work that he had done on Knock Knock and some of those Smog and Edith Frost records that had strings and horns and things like that that you wouldn’t necessarily expect.

I feel like you guys captured that O’Rourke effect pretty well on this one, with those kinds of flourishes. Obviously, he doesn’t make too much of that sort of music anymore — he’s over in Japan doing his thing. But yeah, I felt like this album has a similar vibe to when you were working with him.

MCCAUGHAN: We’ve always tried to do something different with each record, both to make an interesting record and to keep it interesting for ourselves. So working with people like Jim, and people like Brian Paulson, who have really good senses of space and arrangement — I mean, if you work on a record with someone like Jim, hopefully you do take something of that with you that you can use in the future.

Have you guys been able to rehearse the songs together as a band as the pandemic has evolved and the restrictions have morphed a little bit?

MCCAUGHAN: No, we have not rehearsed any of these songs yet. So I’ve been trying to learn them myself. Because, again, I recorded my guitar parts so long ago. I mean, I’ve heard the songs a million times, so they’re in my head, but I’m playing them and singing them at the same time, which I’ve never had to do. So yeah, our tour starts in about a month. And obviously, we’ll have some rehearsal time between now and then. I hope to figure out how to do that. But live, it’s going to be electric guitars. That’s another thing: Playing these songs on electric is gonna feel different, sound different. And I’m looking forward to seeing how that works with the whole band.

I was wondering if you were going to incorporate the acoustic into the live setup, or if you were going to be one of those bands with the rack of different guitars for different songs.

MCCAUGHAN: On some tours, like Here’s To Shutting Up, Jim and I each had an acoustic guitar on stage, and we had keyboards on stage and were kind of switching around a lot on that tour. But I feel like in general, when we tour, and when we play live, we play a different set every night, and we incorporate songs from all our records. And I feel like in order to keep doing that, which I like doing — it’s fun, and I think it’s fun for people coming to see us because it’s not the same every night — I think it makes it harder. I feel like if you structure your live show around trying to recreate your new record, and then there’s acoustic guitars or some other thing that makes that new record really different than all your other records, then everything has to be overly rehearsed or kind of set in stone in terms of how things have to work, logistically. And I think I’d rather be able to just go through a set of all different kinds of songs. And to make that happen, I feel like we have to just play electric guitars, which streamlines things and gives us more flexibility.

It seems like the last couple Superchunk records have gotten more overtly political and widened the focus to more big-picture kind of subjects. Do you attribute that your own maturation as a person? Or does it have more to do with the way the world has gone?

MCCAUGHAN: I feel like it’s just getting older, changing as a person. We always have political songs on our records, whether you can tell they’re political or not, because it was never super, you know, like sloganeering or anything like that. But I think it’s more just realizing, as you get older, that maybe people don’t need to hear every little personal complaint that you have. There was a great quote in a Greg Cartwright interview that I think about all the time where he was talking about his earlier songs. They’re a lot angrier and more intense or something. And he said, “That’s because that’s when you’re young, and you haven’t realized that all your problems are your fault.” And you’re still in the “I’m blaming everyone else” kind of mood. So hopefully as you get older you can kind of unscramble your brain a little bit. Not that I feel like I’m not completely scrambled — [but] you can have some perspective, hopefully.

I’m wondering about the challenges of running Merge these days — dealing with the pandemic, I guess, but also longer-standing changes in the music industry, be it streaming or the vinyl plants being all backed up. How has that side of your life has become more complicated? Or has it?

MCCAUGHAN: As you know, because you’re paying attention to it, there was a moment early on in lockdown when, of course, everyone is freaking out. Clubs, record stores, bands. I mean, that’s just in the music business, obviously. And then record stores kind of adjusted and figured out ways to sell records. And then everyone just started buying records like crazy. I mean, vinyl sales were already fine, but they kind of exploded, which led to pressing plants being backed up — not just because of the demand, but because, I mean, if you’re a pressing plant, maybe there’s four people running the presses, and two of them have COVID. And then those two presses aren’t running for the next couple of weeks. It was compounding difficulties, just leading to crazy, crazy disruption.

And it’s really thanks to everyone at Merge who managed to keep their head in it and keep things going, when it would have been easy to just be like, “Fuck this.” We found ourselves trying to make sure the stores had stock of records by bands that couldn’t even go on tour. So in some ways, you would think like, “Oh, well, it’s gonna be hard to sell these records, the band’s not touring.” The record just came out, you know? Like Waxahatchee, Caribou, Torres, all these bands that had new records right around that time. They were still selling really well. And people who certainly would have gone to see them in concert still wanted to hear them but also wanted to find ways to support those bands. So they’re like, “Well, I can buy the records.” Bandcamp started doing their Bandcamp Friday thing, which was a big boost.

So there was still a lot to do as a record label to make sure that even without any touring happening. We were still doing everything we could to support these artists and their new records. And it’s still an issue in terms of the the lead times now that we have for making new records. It’s a long time. This Superchunk record, I know the vinyl came in, so our record is gonna come out on time. But we’ve definitely had to move release dates around and things like that, and it sucks, but it’s something that I feel like bands have been very understanding about. And we try to be understanding with all the people we work with, because pressing plants don’t want to be sending you stuff late, places printing sleeves don’t want to be — they all want things to be running smoothly, you know what I mean? So it’s no one’s ideal situation. But I think that we’ve been kind of doing doing the best that we can in keeping things moving along.

For a label like yours, and for a band like yours, doing the thing where you release the album digitally first, and then the vinyl comes out like six months later — it doesn’t seem like that would work that great for you.

MCCAUGHAN: That’s a hard thing to make solid, just because so much music is coming out all the time. If you release a whole album digitally or whatever, and say, “OK, just wait a few months for the CD and LP,” your hardcore fans, of course, are still gonna be there for you and go get it. But a lot of the people who might have heard a song that they really liked at the time, there’s so much water under the bridge by the time the physical is available that their attention may be grabbed by something else at that point. As a small band, especially, you’re really competing with so many other things that are out there to grab people’s attention, that you want to try to kind of make the biggest splash that you can when your record comes out.

Speaking of grabbing people’s attention: When you guys first started making records again, you kind of had that going for you in terms of, “It’s their first album in nine years, they’re reunited,” or whatever. At this phase of your career, more than a decade on from that comeback, do you feel like there are things you can still do to catch the attention of people beyond the Superchunk zealots? Or is trying to win new fans something that’s even on your mind?

MCCAUGHAN: I think about that. And I feel both thankful that we have fans that are still excited when we have a new record coming out, and I feel like we’ve been able to hopefully maintain the momentum that we generated with Majesty Shredding, finding new ways to make records that we that we didn’t really have to think about for the first 15 years of our existence. But I do feel like if you keep making good music, there’s always people that are like, “Why didn’t I ever check out this band before?” Or there’s actual young people who weren’t even like listening to records when we first started making music, where this is their real first opportunity to hear something, and if we can somehow get on their radar, that’s even better, you know?

As someone who is 38 now, I’m always intrigued to see which things from the ’80s and ’90s permeate the consciousness of younger listeners, like what older bands does the 20-year-old intern know and love?

MCCAUGHAN: We have kids who are 18 and 14, and it’s interesting what makes it into their consciousness. And a lot of it is, I think, maybe, bands that are young that were influenced by bands from the ’90s will mention those bands. And then our son will be like, “They said that they like ‘blah blah blah,’ aren’t they on Merge?” Things like that. Or people’s parents will mention that they love Neutral Milk Hotel or whatever. I think there are ways that bands really do still break into people’s consciousness.

It’s funny because when I was in college and I was learning about, say, the Mekons or bands from New Zealand like the Chills or Verlaines or something, if this is like ’86 or ’87, I already felt like, “Oh my gosh, I’m so late to the party on this band.” And they’d only been around for like six years or something like that. So to me, if people are still finding out about us at this point, that’s awesome, because in some ways that’s way beyond what you could rightfully expect as a shelf life. And bands like that, bands like the Chills or the Mekons or Yo La Tengo, are such great role models for continuing to make great records and play shows and be compelling without any sense of time diminishing that.

Wild Loneliness is out 2/25 on Merge.

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